The successful historical novel is a bit like a traditional patchwork quilt, composed of bits and remnants of material pieced together to create something new. Aunt Sally’s dress fabric meets Jimmy’s suit and Mama’s curtains and those matching shirts Sis made for the twins: Each piece brings its own stories, and the whole assemblage becomes something else—and therefore interesting in its own right.
Then, to find real worth, the quilt needs to be layered up with something warm, to warrant as much appreciation in the dark as in the daylight.
Asheville writer Wayne Caldwell’s first novel, Cataloochee (Random House, 2007), is patched together from a wealth of historical detail. The reader is left certain of the writer’s familiarity with the lives of rural Western Carolinians in the 19th and early 20th centuries. But there isn’t much warmth.
Cataloochee recounts the history of settlers in a fictional valley out west of Waynesville, particularly the fortunes of one family line. The book begins with a family tree that runs back to Old Jimmie Carter, whose firstborn arrived in 1814. The tale follows descendants up through the beginnings of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and a murder trial in 1928. It has the feel of a short story with an overlong prologue in which characters shift so frequently that no connections can develop.
Comparisons must be made to Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain (Vintage, 1997) and 13 Moons (Random House, 2006), due to the similar subject matter and regional setting—and because a blurb from Frazier graces the dust jacket.
What Frazier achieves, and Caldwell does not, is attachment. From the outset of both Cold Mountain and 13 Moons, the reader is hooked to characters whose fates matter, characters about whom one wants to, and does, learn more. Caldwell’s characters, for the most part, never emerge as much more than names charted on a genealogical ladder.
The book suffers as well from an overuse of accidental death. Large things fall on people and animals with unsurprising regularity. After a wind storm, Henry finds that a hemlock has crashed into his barn and onto his mule. “He couldn’t tell if the tree had toppled Old Sal and she had drowned, or if it had killed her outright. Her head was half underwater and cocked at an odd angle, tongue drooping like a washrag in the water. The tree hung over her side and filled half the stall.”
The scene follows by 80 pages another where Marion had been following his own mule and plow when a black gum tree he’d been burning fell on him. Henry and Silas were first on the scene: “Turning the limb enough to see if the man under it might still be alive, they found [him], impaled by the remnant of a smaller limb that had poked out his belly on the other side.” It precedes by about the same space of pages a scene in which another unfortunate man is squashed. “The outcropping above them had expanded and contracted with fire and weather one time too many and had fallen straightway atop Ed Camel. His only visible parts were the right forearm and hand. His fingers moved, clawlike, reptilian.”
The reader develops a sense that gravity held more sway in olden times.
Another recent novel by an Appalachian native, Donald McCaig’s Canaan (Vintage Books, 2007), treats the same era and shares Frazier’s knack for human warmth. All three authors have steeped themselves in the essential minutiae of historical fiction, the detail needed to bring old times into clear focus: the tools, the food, the conflict, the gender roles and the primitivism that let a reader inhabit another century. But only two provide characters whose fates seem worth a 400-page slog.
Furthermore, one comes away from a great novel in some measure changed by situations and choices that reach deep into the heart, where they are turned over and polished in the light of personal experience. Frazier writes that kind of book, the kind we carry with us into the darkness.
Caldwell is a good short-story writer, a fine historian and has a two-book contract with his publisher. Cataloochee is a worthy first step. Many regional readers will be eagerly awaiting his next offering, hopeful that his artful quilt-making can be stitched together into something warmer on the second go.
Wayne Caldwell presents Cataloochee Saturday, June 23, at Malaprop’s Bookstore/Café (55 Haywood St.). 7 p.m. Free. 254-6734.